WASHINGTON - President Obama paid tribute Monday to the men and women who have died defending America, pointing to Vietnam veterans as an underappreciated and sometimes maligned group of war heroes who remained true to their nation despite an unwelcome homecoming.
“You were sometimes blamed for the misdeeds of a few,’’ Obama said at the Vietnam War Memorial. “You came home and were sometimes denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.’’
“Even though some Americans turned their backs on you, you never turned your back on America,’’ Obama said.
The president also designated May 28 to Nov. 11 for commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. He urged Americans to honor Vietnam veterans with programs, ceremonies, and activities.
To mark Memorial Day, the president spoke in front of the black granite memorial honoring the more than 58,000 service members who died in the Vietnam War.
Earlier at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from the capital, Obama noted that for the first time in nine years, “Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq,’’ and the nation was winding down its role in Afghanistan.
“After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of the new day on the horizon,’’ Obama said to an audience gathered at the Arlington amphitheater lined with American flags under a warm, brilliant sun.
Obama said the nation must remain committed to providing for the families of fallen soldiers and help returning service members seeking a job, higher education or health care benefits.
“As long as I’m president, we will make sure you and your loved ones will receive the benefits you’ve earned and the respect you deserve,’’ the president said. “America will be there for you.’’
Obama said sending troops into harm’s way was “the most wrenching decision that I have to make. And I can promise you I will never do so unless it’s absolutely necessary.’’
As he seeks reelection, Obama has reminded the public about the end of the war in Iraq and the move to bring all troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. And in a campaign ad released last week, he credits US service members who helped in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who spoke before the president, said that Arlington National Cemetery, which is the final resting place for more than 14,000 service members, is “a constant reminder that freedom is not free.’’
About 6,400 US military personnel have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 48,000 have been wounded, according to the Defense Department.
The president and Michelle Obama started the day with a breakfast at the White House for families who have lost loved ones in combat.
The Obamas also met Monday with 24 women accepted into the Navy’s nuclear submarine program. It’s the first time women are being assigned to the submarine force, according to a White House statement.
Michelle Obama will sponsor the USS Illinois, a future Navy submarine named after her home state. The Virginia-class attack submarine is being built in Groton, Conn., and Newport News, Va. The new submarine is expected to join the fleet in late 2015.
As sponsor, Michelle Obama will establish a special link to the ship’s sailors and their families.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Monday promised to maintain an American military “with no comparable power anywhere in the world.’’
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee appeared with Senator John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential candidate, before a crowd of about 5,000 in San Diego.
The former Massachusetts governor warned against shrinking America’s military in Europe’s image and said the nation must have the world’s strongest military to win wars and prevent them.
Veterans could play a significant role in the 2012 election. Several closely watched states in the election have large blocs of military voters.
Florida, home to several military installations, has more than 1.6 million veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. Pennsylvania has nearly 1 million veterans, while Virginia and North Carolina each have about 800,000 veterans living in their states.
The Obama campaign says the president has fought for increased funding for veterans’ health care and expansion of the GI Bill for education. He has also won approval of a tax credit that encourages businesses to hire veterans.
But the government has a backlog of thousands of military disability cases, with the waiting period for action lasting a year or more, Senator Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, said Sunday. “It’s not acceptable,’’ she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’